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In the Heights
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed and Choreographed by Luis Salgado
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2022

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

In the Heights was the first Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Best Musical before Hamilton. Even though it wasn’t quite the huge phenomenon that the latter show turned out to be, the first show is an entertaining, memorable, and character-filled hit in its own right. Now on stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center as produced by STAGES St. Louis, this is a dynamic, crowd-pleasing production with a strong cast and stellar production values.  It’s a compelling look at a distinctive New York City neighborhood and variety of people who live there, along with their hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Miranda’s blend of hip-hop, pop, Latin music, and traditional musical theatre influences work well to tell this story set in Washington Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood. The central character, Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) owns a bodega, assisted by his young cousin, Sonny (Luis-Pablo Garcia). Usnavi essentially narrates the show from the beginning, telling his own story as well as introducing many of the other characters whose stories intertwine. There’s the Rosario family, who run a taxi business–Kevin (Edward Juvier) and Camila (Tauren Hagans), who are proud of their daughter Nina (Isabel Leoni), who has just finished her first year at Stanford. She’s hiding a secret, though, which she’s afraid to reveal to her parents. Nina also grows closer to Benny (Jahir Lawrence Hipps), who drives for the taxi company, but hopes to start his own someday. There’s also Vanessa (Amanda Robles), the object of Usnavi’s affections, who dreams of moving to an apartment downtown. Other local characters include Vanessa’s boss at the local hair salon, the gossip-loving Daniela (Ariana Valdes) and equally gossipy co-worker Carla (Marlene Fernandez), as well as Sonny’s pal Graffiti Pete (Cristian Rodriguez), a local frozen treat vendor known as Piragua Guy (Michael Schimmele), and the woman most people call Abuela Claudia (Tami Dahbura), who is especially close to Usnavi and the Rosarios. It’s a steamy summer in the neighborhood, and transition is in the air for many of the characters, whose aspirations vary and are affected by various plot events in different ways. A lottery drawing, romantic and family tensions, a heatwave and a blackout all contribute to the drama of this compelling, well-structured story.

The cast is terrific, simply stated. Alvarado has an amiable, awkward charm as Usnavi, and his performance is somewhat reminiscent of original Broadway lead Miranda. His chemistry with Robles’s determined Vanessa is sparkling, as are his scenes with the superb Dahbura as the “heart” of the show, Abuela Claudia. Garcia is also a strong standout as Sonny, showing strong physicality and comic timing. Also strong are Leoni as the conflicted Nina, who also has excellent chemistry with the equally impressive Hipps as Benny. There are some particularly strong voices here all around, and some great moments to shine especially for Dahbura on “Paciencia y Fe”, Schimmele as Piragua Guy, and Valdes as the big-voiced Daniela. Also worth mentioning are Juvier as Kevin Rosario, and Fernandez in a fun comic turn as Carla. There’s a great ensemble here, as well, with lots of energy, enthusiasm, and strong dance skills in the production numbers, dynamically choreographed by director Luis Salgado. It’s also great to see a live orchestra here again, which is becoming an especially welcome new tradition for STAGES now that they are in their current venue. The band here, led by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, is lively and in great form. 

With great music and vocals, this show is a treat for the ears, as well as for the eyes, since the production values are nothing short of dazzling. Broadway set designer Anna Louizos has brought Washington Heights to the stage here in vivid detail, with a richly appointed multi-level set. There’s also vibrant lighting design by Sean M. Savoie and colorful, detailed costumes by Brad Musgrove. In the setting and the staging, the neighborhood has come to life as essentially a character in its own right. 

With music, drama, dynamic energy, and lots of heart, In the Heights is a vivid portrayal of a community and a neighborhood, as well as a portrayal of the importance of family, friendships, dreams, and the definition of “home”. It’s also supremely entertaining. It’s a first-rate production at STAGES St. Louis.

Amanda Robles, Ryan Alvarado, Luis-Pablo Garcia
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting In the Heights at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 31, 2022

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In the Heights
Words and Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Christina Rios
Choreographed by Cecily A. King
R-S Theatrics
August 17, 2017

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
R-S Theatrics

In the Heights is a big show for a small theatre company like R-S Theatrics. With music and lyrics by the celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is a show with a great deal of technical and casting demands. It’s an exciting show as well, and I’ve been anticipating seeing it ever since R-S announced they would be producing it. That was over a year ago, and now R-S has proved that the show was worth waiting for, with a vibrant, well-cast production.

The show’s title comes from its setting–the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. The cast and characters reflect the neighborhood’s mostly Latino population. Usnavi De La Vega (Jesse Muñoz) owns a local bodega and introduces many of the local residents as they patronize his store. The rest of the cast includes Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny (Kevin Corpuz), who also works at the bodega, and Usnavi’s friend Benny (Marshall Jennings), a young African-American man who works for a local taxi company run by Kevin (Jaime Reyes) and Camila Rosario (Maritza Motta-Gonzalez). The Rosarios’ daughter, Nina (Cassandra Lopez) has struggled with her grades at Stanford and returns to the area conflicted about how to tell her parents that she’s dropped out. Usnavi is attracted to hairdresser Vanessa (Natasha Toro), who has a difficult home life and wishes for a new life outside the neighborhood. There’s also Abuela Claudia (Carmen García), who Usnavi considers his grandmother, since she raised him after the death of his parents. There’s a large cast of additional characters as well, including Daniela (Anna Skidis Vargas), who runs the salon that Vanessa works at, and Carla (Gabriela Diaz), who also works there. There’s also Grafitti Pete (Karl Hawkins) and a local Piragüero (Kelvin Urday) who sells frozen treats in the neighborhood. The intertwining plot lines follow the characters through important moments and decisions, as well as showing their hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles as the neighborhood changes, and lives are changed in various significant ways.

This is R-S Theatrics’ first production in the new .Zack Theatre. It’s a space that has some interesting challenges in terms of staging, but director Christina Rios and the show’s large cast make the most of the space. Keller Ryan’s set is fairly simple, and it works well for the space, along with Nathan Schroeder’s vibrant lighting that helps set the scene and provide some excellent effects in various moments like the “Blackout” sequence and finale. There are some great costumes by Sarah Porter, as well, and the orchestra conducted by musical director Leah Luciano is also excellent. There is occasionally a problem with the music overpowering the actors’ voices, although that situation does improve significantly in the second act.

The cast is strong here, with excellent vocals and energetic dancing to Miranda’s eclectic, hip-hop, pop, and Latin-influenced score. Muñoz is particularly engaging as the earnest, charming and somewhat awkward Usnavi. He’s the main character and essentially the narrator of the show, but its emotional heart is largely with Carmen García’s excellently portrayed and powerfully voiced Abuela Claudia. There are also strong turns from Lopez as the conflicted Nina, who has good chemistry with the also excellent Jennings as Benny. Their duets are among the vocal highlights of the show. There’s also great work from Corpuz, who is simply terrific as Sonny, Toro as Vanessa, Skidis Vargas as Daniela, Diaz as Carla, Zayas and Motta-Gonzalez as Kevin and Camila, and Urday in especially strong voice as the Piragüero. There’s an excellent ensemble in support, as well, giving a lot of energy to the production numbers like “Blackout”, “96,000”, “Carnaval Del Barrio” and more, showcasing Miranda’s memorable score and Cecily A. King’s dynamic choreography.

In the Heights is an obviously affectionate musical, looking at the lives and loves of the residents of Washington Heights with poignancy and a strong dose of hope. It’s a Best Musical Tony winner, and I can see why. This is another strong, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining production from R-S Theatrics.

Jesse Muñoz, Kevin Corpuz, Marshall Jennings
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting In The Heights at the .Zack Theatre until September 3, 2017.

 

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